I’m absolutely devasted to say goodbye to this top chap, today.
I cannot quantify the impact he had on my life. He was most certainly the most important mentor I ever had. Even after he was my boss, (he’d always roll his eyes when I addressed him as Boss!) he stayed in touch and willingly offered an ear whenever I had a new pathway to choose in life.
As my boss, he showed me how to lead with compassion. He supported me when my wife had a cancer scare and her associated surgeries – I’d only been working for him for a few months at that point. He wrapped a security net around me and made sure I had every I needed to function as Helen underwent several, scary surgeries. Later, when she and I were trying to start a family and struggling with fertility, he was so supportive. It wasn’t something we widely shared so when last minute appointments occurred (because you can’t time these things), he made sure I was able to disappear without any workplace gossip. He’d even cover my classes. He wrote a reference for us when we were going through the adoption process and, by this point, we were no longer working together.
I had my first teaching management role thanks to Niel. He took a chance on an excitable and focused 26 year old and believed I could work with him to turn around a struggling subject. In the interview, I remember he asked me where I wanted to be in five years… I pointed to his huge, lavish desk chair and replied, “There looks pretty good.” Tipping his head back, he roared with laughter and offered me the job about an hour later. He championed my department as we battled the ever-changing education landscape. In fact, he was an honorary member of the English team because, of course, that was his subject specialism. As a headteacher, he’d still roll up his sleeves and teach: covering classes, running revision sessions, presiding over debate club competitions, and being interviewed by students for spoken language coursework (there will be other English teachers who remember the misery that was the spoken language coursework, I’m sure). One year, he even agreed to play the role of a nefarious stooge (and murder victim) for a Year 9 surprise CSI project. He let me film him breaking into the school safe and take pictures of him contorted on the floor, covered in ketchup. Students had to figure out whodunnit and whenever one would approach him at breaktime to say, “Hey, you’re alive?!” He’d reply that he wasn’t Niel McLeod but was actually his twin brother, Nigel McLeod. He’d claim the Governors had asked him to step in undercover, during the CSI investigation, so that the school remained stable. All delivered with a straight and earnest face.
Whenever I presented a harebrained idea, he’d encourage me to try it and, more often than not, squeeze the budget so that we could make it happen. He was also there during the dark days – the challenging kids, the tricky parents, staff shortages, the changing GCSE criteria, the disappearance of subject advisors and the countless Ofsted inspections. Including an HMI inspection of just my department which was announced on a snow day. An actual snow day. Everyone else was at home, making snow angels and drinking hot chocolate. We were in the building, preparing for the next day, planning lessons, tidying up and freezing. Of course Niel turned up to check we were ok and to make tea.
Niel was always person-focused. He not only promoted me and gave me opportunities in senior roles, he also provided the leadership coaching I needed to be effective in those roles. Equally, he took me seriously when I was struggling to decide whether or not to leave teaching. We weren’t working in the same school then but he was the first person I wanted to speak to when teasing out the problem. Like Niel, I could never turn off that part of me that is a teacher (nor would I want to), but in that conversation, he also showed me that I could channel it into other settings.
We last spoke in 2019. I had left teaching (twice by this point!) and was undertaking my MA. For my dissertation, Niel helped me to connect to people in Portsmouth – because there isn’t a soul in Pompey he didn’t know! Later that year, we spoke again about how the dissertation had fared and about my plans to do a PhD. I was nervous and didn’t think I was smart enough. He made short shrift of that concern. In that call, we made plans to go for a coffee early in 2020 for a proper face to face catch up. Covid robbed us of that. And now it’s heartbreaking to know there will be no more catch ups.
If Niel was here now, I’d make damn sure he knew how he had impacted my life. I wish I had told him, explicitly, when I had the chance. Thank you, Niel – for everything.
We’re firmly marching towards my birthday [pauses to receive birthday wishes]. It is utterly alarming because June 1st means we’re half way through 2022. How can that be, already? As last year’s birthday was a bit of a post-surgery-recovery-write-off, I’m going to claim I’m 40 this year. Again.
It has been a mucky year up to this point but I feel like the last week has turned a corner. Let’s brush over the muck (brush off the muck? Hmmm, I think I’m mixing my metaphors because I’m out of blogging practice) and focus on the positives. Like the fact that the house is more or less complete now, following our move and renovations, so life is much calmer. Or that I’m regularly getting 6+ hours sleep now we’ve invested in one of those fancy, adjustable beds. Yes, we’re totally down with the kids.
In the last week, I’ve also refound my PhD stride. I’m back with my chums on PhD Forum (link) more often, when meetings allow. Also, I’ve gone back to old school methods and reinstated my bullet journal. It’s a really simple but effective way of organising the noise in my head, particularly when I’m juggling multiple things. Essentially, there are official rules you can check out online (link) but my system is simple:
a square bullet is a task
a circular bullet is a meeting or appointment
a dot means I’ve started
shading means it’s completed
an arrow means I’ve moved it to another day or week
a cross means it was cancelled
In addition to this, I lay out pages differently to organise work and diaries and the month ahead and plans and notes. I love how it gives me a sense of completion and that it helps me to break larger chunks of work into manageable actions. I am predisposed to spend far, far too much time making my bullet journals look pretty – but as I recognise that’s actually an act of procrastination, I’m avoiding it this time and keeping things plain.
Also this week, I’m on the final part of my data analysis and I’m so close to returning to the actual writing. I’ve also got to grips with the overall thesis structure. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle at the moment: I’m still scrabbling around for some pieces which are missing; I’ve done all the corners and most of the edges; there are a few wonky pieces where I tried to force them into the wrong spots; a few random patches of completed puzzle are dotted all over the table but I’m not yet sure where they fit in the final picture. But, still, it all feels like progress and I’m looking forward to discussing plans with my supervisors this week.
Over the last few months, I’ve had the privilege of working as a research assistant on a project within my department (www.EmbedEDI.com). I’ve landed myself in a brilliant team: knowledgeable, patient, creative and collegiate. The PI has a great approach in making us all feel equally valued. This week has been a period of firsts… Not only is this my first role in a project, but I’ve also had the chance to co-write my first conference abstract – fingers crossed we’re successful. Also, for the first time, I was involved in a presentation that isn’t focused on my own MA or PhD research. I’m loving every minute of it because the research is so important and it’s beginning to take on a life of its own.
A small but mighty win for the week is my desk set up. This must be my third or fourth work from home blog post but, in my defence, we have moved house. The details are dull – so I will be brief – but essentially I’ve managed to sort out my second monitor to a more reasonable height. In turn, this means I’ve been able to lower my desk chair. All of which has meant that my left hip has stopped raging in protest and I feel significantly younger. Although, it will still be a little achy if my wife asks about any chores or DIY!
I know I need to tidy my desk but how’s that for a high-impact-low-cost solution? Took off the monitor’s fixed stand and I’ve rested it on a book stand I already had.
Anyway, the tiny cynic I carry in my head is cautioning that celebrating recent wins will mean I’ll tempt some sort of catastrophe. I’ve told her to shut up. But in an unpublishable fashion.
I last blogged in January. Rather than letting 2022 quietly enter the room, I’m pretty convinced that someone squared up to it and challenged it to do its worse.
When blogging, I am self-deprecating and sarcastic. My default mode is to look for the humour in life, particularly when writing about myself. I just don’t know how to write about my life, work and research right now because that voice, that tone, would be inappropriate. I am well aware that the terrible things which are a constant backdrop in my head at the moment are front and centre for millions of people. Who cares if I am navigating how to do a PhD, renovate a house, recover from a car collision and juggle work at the same time? I mean, could I display my privilege any more prominently? Oh, how awful for me trying to study whilst different trades-people are working on my new house… How terrible it is to wonder how to break up my day so I concentrate on data analysis (my PhD) and recruitment (the project I’m working on)… What rotten luck that I went without a car for a week because my insurer is less than helpful…
Can you hear yourself, Jo?
People are dead. Displaced. Under attack. In financial crisis and unable to heat their homes. Being let down by their leaders. Unsure of their futures. Scared for their children.
And now I’m meta-analysing whether this will be perceived as some ridiculous plea for permission or absolution. It isn’t. It’s just an explanation of why the blog has been quiet.
I am sorry to the authors who have shared pre-publications with me. I will make time to read and review as soon as possible.
…with 2022. No sudden movements or loud noises, in case we spook it. Shhhhh, tiptoe gently into January, please.
This blog was going to be a reflection of the year, using our family Jar of Happiness as an aide memoire, like I wrote last year. But we’ve been pretty remiss with the jar since the start of the autumn so that’s not possible. Despite the fact that 2021 felt like the longest year ever, this will be the shortest round up and you’ll be pleased to note that most of it is in picture format.
A surprising number of things brought me happiness this year. Pre-summer, when we were still under Covid-house arrest because of my vulnerable wife, lots of this happiness was food based! We had a meal dropped off by a private chef, a local curry chef and a baker have both delivered to our door (dangerous discoveries), our neighbour has kept us stocked up on cake (which she bakes but doesn’t eat herself) and we’ve even had fun doing a few online cook-a-longs.
One of the best things about this year, compared to 2020, has been our ability to actually see friends and family. Sure, it basically has to be outdoors no matter the weather but it has been such a joy to see actual faces and not just through ZoomTeamsMessengerSkypeHangoutsFacetimeWhatsapp. I’ve been hanging out online and studying with the best group of people since September 2020: The PhD Forum. Being able to meet many of them in person this year has been magical. We’ve also been blessed with the opening of The Crate Café in Bosham (check them out here), which has meant we can meet up with local friends and family in an outdoor space with food, coffee, heaters and shelter.
Our dear Maggie also turned 13. Despite scaring us back in March with rapidly declining health, she’s bounced back and made it to another Christmas.
THE NOT SO BAD
Achievements wise, a few not too shabby things have happened this year. I’ve finished the data collection aspect of my PhD so now it’s all in my hands to finish 🤢. I managed to pick up some work at the University, doing GTA (graduate teaching assistant) bits – and I’ve secured some work for 2022 in terms of marking and RA stuff (research assistant).
I built several Lego sets this year, completed a paint by numbers and a diamond art doodah, and learned how to make sushi.
The biggest accomplishment of the year, if you speak to my wife, is probably my creation of The Wonky Bar: our at home pub complete with a cinema-style entertainment space.
We also got a new car – sounds fancy but it was a downsizing situation to save money. We managed to do a lot of the DIY projects we’d been putting off… and then promptly sold our house! It was on the market for 9 days and had 9 viewings before it was snapped up.
My reading challenge this year, set on Goodreads, was 36 books – I was aiming for an average of three a month. Managed to just nip over the line with 40 and there have been some crackers.
To clarify, I don’t mean my wife is ugly just that the ugliest thing to happen this year was in relation to her. Her asthma tried to take her from me back in July/August. An 8 day hospital stay, resuscitation, new meds and treatment plan, and 6 months of recuperation mean she’s still here. But, bloody hell, that was close.
We also said goodbye to Pinch, the last of our cat tribe. She was 14, dinky and incredibly opinionated. The house is definitely a lot quieter without her.
Other ugly things: I turned 40. FORTY?! Although, as it happened mid-pandemic and I couldn’t see anyone, I’ve grandly declared that I’m going to remain 39 until it’s safe to party. I also had a kidney stone removed just days before, so spent my birthday enjoying a series of infections, alarming reactions to medications and a very slow recovery. Multiple courses of antibiotics basically meant the universe gifted me my first ever experience of thrush, just in time for my 40th birthday. Joy.
I can’t end a blog post on the topic of thrush so, instead, there’s lots on the horizon for 2022. I should be turning 40 again and celebrating by popping across to Northern Ireland for a PhD Forum / postponed birthday get-together. I should be getting my other kidney stone removed at some point. We should be moving house. I should be completing the PhD 🤢 and maybe even popping up to Sheffield before I submit. Note the choice of modal verbs… two years into plague living, I think I’ve got the hang of avoiding firm plans.
I opened the 8th day on my (traditional, picture-based) advent calendar this morning and realised I hadn’t yet posted my November reviews. Oops. Just a couple of books last month but I’m also throwing in a game – I can defend that choice because it involved a lot of reading.
The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
I had a look at other reviews before I sat down to pen mine. Wow – Rothfuss absolutely divides readers. As far as I can see, there’s a great deal of jealousy in the naysayers’ camp because they don’t believe a sixteen year old protagonist should or could be like Kvothe (according to Audible, this is pronounced like growth but with a k sound). They take his intelligence as arrogance, his independence as stubbornness and his naivety as a flaw. Have they never met a teenager before? They can be reckless and irritating… but because the plot flipflops between his youthful past and his current life (age unknown), Rothfuss shows the reader how Kvothe has changed. Present day Kvothe is often pretty critical of past Kvothe’s choices.
In my review of the first book in Rothfuss’ series (link), I compared the novel to fish and chips because it’s familiar, filling but not all that good for you. In this sequel, published four years later in 2011, I think Rothfuss shows how he developed as a writer. I complained that the women were superficially depicted in book 1 and I was grateful there was no sex as Kvothe seemed obsessed with boobs. The women in The Wise Man’s Fear are far more dimensional and believable. And there is a lot of sex – but it’s well handled (and no, that’s not a euphemism, I swear). It’s really part of the coming of age tale for Kvothe. One of the fae teaches him how to be an attentive lover, the Adem teach him how to fight and to connect spiritually with his own moral compass, mercenaries teach him how to be diplomatic… it’s the backstory of how Kvothe comes to possess a unique worldview and matching set of skills. Rothfuss also sheds light on how a lot of Kvothe’s reputation in this world is based on exaggeration and rumour – he isn’t as perfect as he is depicted. He is fallible and that’s a good thing; it certainly makes him more believable and likeable to me but also seems to rub other readers the wrong way.
What attracts me most to Rothfuss’ writing is his immense worldbuilding and the reasonably slow pace. The Audible book was over 42 hours (!) and apparently the paperback is over 1000 pages. I know that will deter some folks but I actually love a book that I can’t consume in a couple of sittings. Besides, it also means events and characterisation aren’t dealt with superficially, which is often a complaint I have of Sci-Fi and fantasy books.
Before I recommend this to other fans of the genre, it comes with a George R. R. Martin style health warning. Fans have been waiting since 2011 for the next instalment of the series. Typing Patrick Rothfuss Book 3 into Google will yield more than 1.8 million hits. At times, Rothfuss has declared he won’t be finishing the series because of the fan pressure but, more recently, the next book seems to have a name and a tentative path to publication (link). In the meantime, I’ve happily discovered Rothfuss published a novella based on one of the side characters and a short story about another – those will tide me over for now. And I can’t complain because I started book 2 with the full knowledge that there was book 3 drama – so I’ve done this to myself!
Nightshade by Anthony Horowitz
I’ve long been a fan of the Alex Rider; many of the young people I taught over the years got into reading curtesy of Alex’s activities. Nightshade is the 12th book in the series. Its predecessors have featured terrorist cells, bio-terrorism, cyber-terrorism, organised crime, space travel and nuclear power plants. There was somewhat of a small hiatus before the 11th book, Never Say Die, was released in 2017. I really liked it, despite its lukewarm reception, because it was a departure from some of Alex’s more typical adventures. It was less fantastical than some of the earlier books. At the same time, it felt like the series was coming full circle because the first book began with Alex investigating a family member’s death and Never Say Die was centred on a close friend’s disappearance. Because of this, I thought it was the end of Alex, with Horowitz wrapping up the series. Imagine my joy, when scrolling through Audible with a spare credit to spend, at discovering Horowitz had brought Alex back in 2020. Somehow I’d missed the news.
The first book was published twenty years ago! I’m definitely a different reader now: not only am I much (much, much, much) older, I’m also no longer teaching. I read this for myself rather than through the eyes of my students. Is it flawed? Sure. Horowitz often depicts Alex as a reluctant hero… and his reluctance in Nightshade is the dominant vibe. Alex grouses, grumbles and groans for most of the 448 pages (or 10 hours as an audiobook) in a manner which evokes the Harry Potter of The Order of the Phoenix. It was mildly irritating but I could live with it – not only is he only a teenager, he is being inconvenienced over and over again to save the world. Also, I felt the conclusion was a little rushed in terms of catching the culprit but, again, forgivable as Horowitz spends a great deal of time building the sinister world of the nefarious particular terrorist-for-hire group.
There was lots to enjoy: Alex accepts help from others showing character development; the book deals with manipulation and radicalisation; although the overall story features a lot of technology, Alex’s solutions and actions are low-tech, relying on his skills rather than gadgets. Overall, it was a solid entry to the series with ample potential for maintaining narrative threads in future books.
Detective Stories Case 2: Antarctic Fatale by iDventure
Essentially, this is an escape room in a box. Thank you to my cousin and partner for sharing it with us. You are provided with all the materials you need to investigate a murder. Here is the premise…
In the box, there’s a case file with 20 documents, including an autopsy, witness statements, images and so on. In addition, there are photos, evidence bags, a lie detector readout, an expedition notebook, a newspaper, a letter and a prescription.
There is no instruction about how to proceed or a dictated order… you have complete freedom in what you choose to do and when. We worked together to start reading all of the materials and making notes. There’s a handy investigation proforma included in the case file to help record thoughts – it’s the only thing you need to write on which means once you’ve solved the case, you’re able to pass it on to another person. It’s worth noting that you need to be able to access the internet to test out clues and theories, and to find additional information. A smart phone is sufficient. There are clues online, if you’re stumped. They are quite on the nose, however, and more or less give you the outcomes related to a piece of evidence. That would be disappointing if it wasn’t for the fact there’s so much evidence that getting a leg up with one piece doesn’t mean you’ve solved it.
My wife and I like escape rooms, although we’ve had to stick to virtual versions since March 2020. We also like games, reading, puzzles, and crime TV and movies. So it was a perfect blend for us. Although we did it in one sitting, at around 90 minutes, you could easily come back to it over a few days, like a jigsaw puzzle. You’ll just need to suspend reality and pretend that poor Martin Moor’s death penalty isn’t due to be carried out imminently.
Overall, we’d get another version. I’m pleased there’s the original case and a third case out, too. It’s like having all the bare bones for a reasonably good crime novel but you’ve got to put it all together. Sometimes you need to compare different things you’ve read, other times you’re hacking into emails or even cracking codes. There’s lots to do and plenty of tasks to go around for a larger group. If you’re new to escape rooms and how they work, this might not be the best way to first try them out. We definitely drew on lots of our experience of physical and virtual rooms to figure out what was required of us.
Well, October has been and gone… somehow, I haven’t finished a single fiction book. In my defence, I’ve been reading a lot of PhD flavoured materials but I wouldn’t subject you to reviews of books about Q methodology factor analysis. So, this month, I’m cheating and I’m turning in other people’s homework instead.
I’m lucky to be surrounded by bibliophiles… and I’ve invited them to contribute book reviews for October’s blog post. There’s so much to enjoy in here, you probably won’t want me to resume my reviewing next month. Ho hum. Guest reviewers were asked to tell me about their most recent or favourite fiction book: title, author, genre, summary-in-one-sentence, review-in-one-sentence and rating. Quite typically of book lovers, lots of them struggled to stick to the one sentence rule!
Reviewer:Helen (my long-suffering wife)
Title: The Finisher
Author: David Baldacci
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, young adult – although I do reject that notion! (NB she’s 45!)
Summary: a fast-paced romp where Lord of the Rings meets Eragonbut with a courageous, female protagonist whose wit is as quick and fierce as her loyalty, mind and body. (I mean, she followed the rule but it’s a pretty long sentence.)
Review: suitable for all those girls and young women who are described as bossy when what people actually mean is they have great leadership skills.
Reviewer:Suzi (my marvellous PhD study chum – find her on Twitter here: @susanl_hughes)
Title: Anxious People
Author: Fredrik Backman
Format: always paperback!
Genres: fiction, humour, psychological fiction
Summary: a botched bank robbery becomes a hostage situation in which a group of strangers are brought together, each with their own anxieties, idiosyncrasies and secrets. As the police work to safely resolve the situation, the hostages become unlikely allies and the power of humanity is exposed. (See, Suzi is a one-sentence cheater!)
Review: this has been my favourite book this year, and my favourite Backman novel to date. Revelations throughout to keep the reader alert and individual storylines that are resolved in a complex, integrated and extremely satisfying way! (Also not a sentence!)
Now, you don’t have to take Suzi’s word for it as Backman got a second hit from another contributor!
Reviewer:Sinead (my chum and fellow MA survivor – find her on Twitter here: @sineadfae)
Title: Anxious People
Author: Fredrik Backman
Format: paperback, borrowed from Lancashire Libraries (Yas queen, big up our public libraries!)
Summary: the story is centred around a bank robbery which goes wrong as the bank robber escapes accidentally stumbling into a flat viewing, resulting in a hostage situation. It’s then up to two local police officers to handle whilst they wait detectives to arrive from Stockholm. (Never tell a bibliophile she can only have one sentence, ha!)
Review: I really enjoyed the twists and turns, and it really kept me guessing. I went through a lot of emotions reading it, from laughing out loud to genuine sadness – I think that’s the sign of a good book!
Reviewer:Emma-Jayne (my fabulous Aunty)
Title: Mrs England
Author: Stacey Halls
Format: Kindle eBook
Genre: historical, drama, fiction
Summary: atmospheric, tense and easy to immerse yourself in this tale from the early 1900s. The main character is born to a working class family in Birmingham, she bettered her chances and won a scholarship to a revered Nanny/Nurse training institution. A quiet character, Nurse Ruby manages to get through the training and lands herself a job in a comfortable home in fashionable London. However, a change in circumstance sees her having to leave the relative safety of anonymous London and she ends up in rural West Yorkshire.
Review: absolutely loved this book and will be reading her other two novels in the near future. I do love a book set in days gone by where the author literally takes you there with their well written descriptions of how life would have been. For most, life is obviously harder in this time period but, in some ways, seems a whole lot simpler than life today… certainly less gadgety! This isn’t the case for Nurse Ruby May. She has issues. This novel takes you on a character discovery and you know all is not as it seems. A classic case of judging people before you know their backstory and this book has a couple of great backstories. It kept my interest throughout. I was a little frustrated with a couple of the characters on occasions but this is par for the course, I think. On the whole, a really good read. Good characters. Great atmosphere. Good outcome. Oh, I just read the review should be one sentence. LOL, oops! (Yeah, total disregard for the one sentence rule!)
Reviewer:Sue (my lovely Mum)
Title: The Beekeeper’s Promise
Author: Fiona Valpy
Format: paperback – I still prefer turning actual pages. Plus, weirdly, I love the smell of real books! (You can see whence my love of books originated!I’m also a book sniffer.)
Genre: historical, drama, romance
Summary: a modern woman finds new lease of life in rural France after discovering the history of another brave woman.
Review: it was exceptionally easy to read but not in the simple sense. It flowed. I loved the jumping between time periods and the comparisons between Abi (now) and Eliane (past). I loved the characters, the tension and the history. (Ok, not quite a sentence but I did trick her into joining in!)
Review:Holly and Rose (my epic cousin and her brilliant daughter – she is a founding member of my sisterhood-of-kickass-girl-cousins; you’ll hear from them all in this post…)
Title: My Little Night Light
Author: Claire Freedmand
Illustrator: Alison Edgson
Genre: children’s book, bed time routine
Summary: it’s based right by the seaside, during the night. Featuring a battery powered soft-glowy light in the light house.
Review: I love it because it’s so comforting; it feels as though I’m telling Rose the story as if I’d written it. As if it were our perfect little life in a seaside village.
More from Rose’s point of view: the rhymes sound so smooth off the tongue for Rose. She properly chills out! She loves switching on the light herself. Flicking the pages over and over again and pointing to all the objects and animals – she can almost sound out words after reading it so much. Even words like rock pool. She particularly loves the last page because she thinks it’s her in the bed! Every time we reach the end of the story, I say “ahhh, na-night baby Rose” and point to her in the bed. (Seriously, Rose is perfect.)
Reviewer:Charlotte (also a member of the sisterhood-of-kickass-girl-cousins and correctly thinks animals are better than humans – find her on Twitter here: @ch4rmander94)
Title: Right Behind Her
Author: Melina Leigh
Genre: crime, thriller
Summary: book 4 in the series, Sheriff Bree Taggert is facing more painful memories as bodies are discovered buried in the yard of her childhood home, and the pressure is on to track down a brutal killer who has been free to roam her hometown for thirty years. (Oooo, she nailed the one sentence rule!)
Review: I am a huge fan of crime thrillers, and the Bree Taggert series provides just the right balance of mystery, drama, and just a pinch of steamy romance to keep readers engrossed in its pages throughout; if you want a story to keep you on the edge of your seat, this instalment will do just that! (Canny use of a semi-colon to stick to the one sentence, there.)
Reviewer:Sallie (my awesome Aunty – also, I bet my aunties compare how I’ve introduced them!)
Title: The Midnight Library (I’m also a big fan – see my review here).
Author: Matt Haig
Format: Kindle eBook
Genre: Fantasy, philosophy, fiction
Summary: desperate girl feeling unwanted and unnecessary commits suicide and goes to the Midnight Library where she can experience all the lives she feels she could’ve lived.
Review: I thoroughly enjoyed the book, not my usual genre but it was very thought provoking, we’re all meant to live the life we live. (I’m saying nothing about which aunty followed the rules and which did not – hehe.)
Reviewer: Eugenia (my chum and also a fellow MA survivor – find her on Twitter here: @TheMariugenia)
Title: Force of Nature
Author: Jane Harper
Format: hardback – borrowed from the public library! (Yas queen, more public library support!)
Genre: mystery, thriller, crime
Summary: “Five women pick up their backpacks and start walking along a muddy track. Only four come out on the other side” 😲😲😲
Review: I discovered Jane Harper a few months ago, when my local public library’s catalogue suggested her to me after reading a book from Riley Sager, I guess because of their similar writing style. Let me tell you that this was a one-way ride… After reading Jane Harper’s debut novel “The Dry” (which is absolutely brilliant and stunning – highly recommend it as well!), I couldn’t wait to immediately read the second book of her Aaron Falk series, “Force of Nature”as well. Just like with “The Dry”, Jane Harper haunts you with her incredibly addictive writing style, leading you to a non-stop and totally-worth-it one-seating read. The author has an impeccable way of narrating the story in short chapters that immediately haunts you and make you want to continue reading more and more. Unlike other crime and mystery fiction novels, Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series novels are not predictable at all and at the same time they are both perfectly written in a way that makes them both unique and brilliantly narrated so their outcome is never what you had expected to be so far. “Force of Nature” is a fine masterpiece for mystery, thriller and crime reading lovers who although are passionate for these genres, can’t deal with very violent and explicitly descriptive books in order to avoid posterior nightmares, like me 😂🤦♀️. If you are looking forward to reading an addictive, shocking, terrifying and with incredible plot twists book, search no more: this is a perfect choice for you. (Yup, another bibliophile… we had no chance of her sticking to the one sentence rule either!)
Reviewer:Nat (also Natty or NATALIEEEEEEEEEE – youngest member of the sisterhood-of kickass-girl-cousins, who might not yet have forgiven me for convincing her to do an MA)
Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: historical, young adult / coming of age, fiction
Summary: narrated by Death, this book follows the tale of a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany, 1939. Tale of childhood within the destructive environment of a world war. (That’s two sentences, Nat!)
Review: the last book I read, but not my first read of The Book Thief. It is well written, an absolute treasure. Probably one of my all time favourite books. (Nobody tell Nat that it’s been on my to-be-read shelf for ten years.)
Reviewer:Megan (I suggested I introduce Megan as my cousin’s cool friend but Nat said I should say “my cool cousin’s less cool friend”… just so you know, Megan!)
Author: Madeline Miller
Genre: fantasy, historical, Greek mythology
Summary: a retelling of the mythical story of Circe, daughter to the Greek god Helios, who after discovering her powers of sorcery is banished to an island where over the centuries she meets a number of famous faces from Greek legend. (I mean, it is a single sentence but it’s even longer than Helen’s!)
Review: this book is full of so many quotable lines thanks to Miller’s beautiful writing style and the complex characters brilliantly bring the world of myth to life. (Nailed it, Megan.)
Reviewer: Child 1 (eldest child of my spiffing study chum – go follow her on Twitter here: @PhDMumLife)
Title: Room on the Broom
Author: Julia Donaldson
Illustrator: Axel Scheffler
Format: board book
Genre: children’s book
Summary by Child 1: witch and cat! And loses hat! Yes! Cries the witch. Dragon roar! Scary and loud! Hee hee. (Sorry but he’s too cute to penalise for not sticking to the one sentence rule and he was still more succinct than some!)
Review translated by Mum: he loves the book. He loves the film version. He’s entranced by it, he recites whole passages word for word. But I cannot get a review type answer out of him! (When Mum tried earlier in the day, she sent me a video… as soon as she mentioned the book, Child 1 commented “it’s not bed time?” Love it!)
Reviewer:Child 2 (youngest child of small-human-wrangler-extraordinaire @PhDMumLife!)
Yes, yes, I’m late. But I wanted to finish the new Thursday Murder Club before I posted. And I had to climb into the loft to turn on the heating, now that I’ve won that argument.
Three strong books this last month, well suited to the season of pumpkin spiced lattes, scarves and Ugg boots.
The Harm Tree by Rose Edwards
I think in many ways, the novel is technically flawed and could be improved. There were some things I wanted Edwards to expand on and others I wanted her to cut back. But I don’t want to focus on that; I’d rather talk about the feeling it created, because Edwards has got so much right in her debut novel.
There’s something utterly immersive about the way Edwards wields language. Some of her phrases don’t just strike a chord, they perform an entire score that’s simultaneously familiar and new. There’s a great deal I really admired about Edwards’ novel: the Norse-inspired world is richly built, the characters have distinct voices, Edwards doesn’t patronise her YA audience and the female characters defy vapid, fantasy tropes.
I’ll definitely be reading future books from this author.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
I worked out all but one of the twists and whodunnits in Foley’s novel. As you can see on the front cover, Horowitz says it’s a ‘very clever’ book and my extremely smart chum, Suzi (go follow her on Twitter), says she didn’t figure it all out and enjoyed “the genuine surprise.” So I’m thinking I should become a mastermind criminal, detective or crime writer… because I’m rarely surprised by crime novels, TV shows or movies. Is there something wrong with me?! Anyway, my smugness didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.
I think Foley might have done something quite clever with The Guest List and I hope it was deliberate. For the first half of the book, I didn’t like a single character. This is usually a complete turn off for me because it means I’m not invested in what happens to them and it’s the main cause for me to give up on a book. But, somehow, Foley balanced this with a sufficiently interesting plot and setting that meant I persevered. Towards the end of the novel, there were a few women I’d warmed to but the men could literally all get in the sea – they embodied privilege, toxic masculinity and drunk, obnoxious, manchild behaviour.
Unlike some other reviews I’ve looked at, I liked the gothic, gloomy setting; it was a useful plot point (isolating a group of people of a stormy island), as well as matching the overall secret-death-revenge vibe . Although the clues were heavy handed and I’d solved it long before the end, I rather liked the slowness of the story structure, told by multiple people.
The plot is a little broader than the first book, including some spy stuff, ex-husbands, diamonds, the mafia, drugs and therapy. And a sprinkling of romance but not so much that it put me off.
I understand that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s something quintessentially British about Osman’s series (we can call it a series now that Penguin is offering a pre-order of the third book) which really appeals to me. It feels like a perfect, autumn Sunday: a walk in the woods with the dogs kicking up leaves, a roast dinner, a board game, a pair of fluffy socks, a hot chocolate (or mulled cider) and a re-run of David Suchet’s Poirot on ITV. It’s familiar and cosy whilst offering sufficient twists to keep my interest piqued.
The characters are the biggest draw, I think. The second instalment provides more depth to their backgrounds and the multiple moral dilemmas offer greater insight into their personalities. I aspire to be even a little like Elizabeth when I pass through middle age into my golden years… Of course I’d like to be like Joy but I don’t think I’m kind enough!
It’s a big, fat yes from me. I really worried that offering up a sequel so quickly would mean Osman fell into the trap of producing formulaic stories but this couldn’t be further from the reality. I listened to the book via Audible and Lesley Manville is a stellar narrator. There’s also a bonus conversation between Manville and Osman at the end of the book, which I enjoyed.
Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ (because it delivered exactly what it promised)
I was stood in our bathroom last week and noted our array of dental hygiene products. When we were first dating, nearly 21 years ago, you’d find one toothpaste and two toothbrushes. That’s it. Now, we have hers and hers toothpastes for different oral needs, medicated mouthwash, regular mouthwash, two types of toothbrushes (that’s each!), floss, floss harps, tooth picks… and it struck me that this is a sign of being *middle aged, isn’t it?
My brain definitely liked that and has since been in overdrive during my insomnia, gifting me a plethora of other ways in which we’re clearly ageing. I’m pretty sure this isn’t an exhaustive list but maybe documenting it will bore my brain into a new hobby? Some are unique to me, others are shared experiences with my wife.
We don’t want to go out after 4 o’clock for errands – very specifically because we don’t want to lose our space out the front. The car parking wars are real.
When we like a pair of shoes or item of clothing, we buy multiple in different colours or patterns. Job done.
I’m able to hear my skeleton when I get out of bed or get up from a chair or bend over to tie my laces. Like a percussion band with no rhythm.
We’re very happy (nay, delirious) when plans fall through and we get to stay home. Despite having stayed home pretty much since March 2020.
I don’t recognise a lot of music in the charts (my wife doesn’t recognise any of it).
I like the idea of a lie-in but my bladder / back / to do list mean I never get to laze about.
We had an existential crisis when we realised the gap between 1980 and 2021 is the same as 1939 and 1980 (so we shared it with friends to ruin their brains, too).
Our zombie apocalypse plan now involves less running or fighting and more hiding and recruiting clever friends with useful skill sets.
Life admin used to mean organising social events, maybe doing the food shopping and chucking some washing on… Now it means booking some sort of medical or vet appointment, updating some kind of insurance policy or looking at pensions.
We like some foods which actively dislike us in return: I love onion but it gives me heartburn; I like corn on the cob but it exits my system in under an hour; we both like braised meat but it gets stuck in our teeth; my wife loves custard but her stomach rumbles like a pair of trainers in the washing machine on a fast spin.
I have to turn the radio or music down in the car so I can see better. Especially if it’s dark and raining.
We both agree that 9 o’clock in the evening is too late to start a movie.
Gaming now means I’m doing a crossword or convincing my wife to play a board game.
We always do the dishes before bed because neither of us can relax if there’s mess.
I need a specific configuration of pillows for bed or I will wake up temporarily broken.
I shamelessly wear Crocs and I’ve even left the house without changing them.
We used to have a single box of painkillers in the bathroom. Then we ended up with a toiletries bag of various meds. Then a shelf. Now, we have a whole cabinet dedicated to our various pharmaceutical needs and a second cabinet ringfenced for the dogs. Not to mention the fact that we have small stashes of our go-to needs (asthma, migraines, heartburn) in the car glovebox and every single handbag. Just in case.
We’ll pop to the garden centre for something to do. And we don’t even bring down the average age, anymore.
Seriously, we were these wee creatures just two minutes ago?!
So, September’s here already and instead of thrusting us straight into autumn/fall (my favourite season), she seems to have brought a late summer with her. August was a skinny month for reading… just two books. But one of them was an absolute cracker. In fact, Fadugba’s novel has left me with the kind of book hangover that’s made it hard to start something new.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
I chose this as one of my birthday books, using a very generous voucher from some chums.
The book explores Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries – a (literally) underground detective agency in 1950s London. When one of their own is killed on their premises, it sets in motion a number of interrelated investigations and we follow Marion Lane, a first year apprentice, as she tries to solve the multiple whodunnits.
Tonally, it felt like an Agatha Christie; if Poirot or Miss Marple had pitched up, they’d have been in keeping with the setting, characters and plot. One reason I chose the book was that Stuart Turton reviewed it so highly. I am a fan of his book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and thought his endorsement might mean Marion Lane was similar. Sadly, Turton’s novel was far more sophisticated and clever than Willberg’s novel. For instance, I wasn’t sure if Marion Lane was aimed at an older YA audience or adults. Also, the plot wasn’t twisty enough for a whodunnit, in my opinion. I guessed all of the outcomes – and whilst I enjoyed the sense of smugness that gifted me, I do prefer to be surprised by some elements in a crime novel.
It felt like the kind of book you’d enjoy reading on a wintery Sunday, in front of the fire, with a blanket, cake and tea. Comfortable and enjoyable but not exhilarating or challenging.
The Upper World by Femi Fadugba
In an interview (you can read here), Fadugba claims that physics = maths + metaphors. I love this. I love love love this. And it’s exactly how he tackles the physics and time travelling elements in The Upper World.
As with every good book, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for fear of ruining it. Essentially, Fadugba introduces two characters in two different timelines. In the present, we meet Esso, a young boy living in Peckham and trying to survive school, friendships, family and stereotypes. His mother gifts Esso a notebook full of letters and scribblings from his absent father, which explain the Upper World, physics, space and time. Once Esso begins reading it, he starts to experience unfathomable things. In the second timeline, fifteen years in the future, Rhia is a struggling football star from Peckham. She lives with a foster family and has unanswered questions about her past and her mother.
Fadugba takes us on a real and metaphysical journey as Esso and Rhia’s timelines collide – the result being the Upper World. At different points, the novel made me feel really clever (I’m getting it, I’m getting it) and at others, I felt really dim (I’m just going to reread that last section 389656 times). In hindsight (is that a metaphysical joke?), I wish I’d read a printed version of the book instead of listening to it on Audible. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Moutchi and Weruche Opia were exemplary narrators, but I think I needed to see some of the more complex ideas as ink on paper. That is literally my only criticism and, really, it’s a criticism of my own choices!
The Upper World ticks every box for me: interesting science fiction, very well developed characters, compelling premise, a plot that rattles along at a brisk pace, satisfying conclusion coupled with the hope of future books, a lack of unnecessary romance, and a strong level of realism. Whilst the present timeline is evidently set many years from now, given the level of tech the characters access, much of it is familiar. The depiction of life in London for young Black people, the inner city school system and the lives of people in the care system are all well-handled and not glazed over.
I’d like to know more about Esso’s father and the village of his heritage, given Fadugba clearly hints there is an acceptance of the existence of the Upper World there. But that’s a wish-list not a criticism! It’s also exciting that Netflix have picked up the rights for a film adaptation. Sometimes that makes me nervous because I worry they’ll ruin the book but I’m keen because the producers have been working with Fadugba.
I really can’t recommend this book strongly enough.
Actually, this is about my patronuses (Potter world plural spelling) or patroni (sounds better?).
A bit of a departure from my normal blogs and I very nearly didn’t write or publish this because it’s about my weight, which seems personal and unrelated to my professional / PhD life. But (as any plus sized person will tell you) if you are carrying extra weight, it consumes* most of your waking day.
Here are some examples. First, I generally avoid public engagements with people I don’t know because I hate being judged and, let me tell you, as a fat person, I know full well when I’m being judged. In this regard, the pandemic-work-from-home-forever-and-ever has suited me because all my PhD related social interactions (conferences / public speaking / group studying) have been via video conferencing. Ta da, folks can only see me from the shoulders upwards. It took some doing and mental preparation to bring myself to meet new PhD friends in person, once it was safe to do so, without being emotionally wobbly*.
Second, whilst I hate exercising, I know it’s obviously good for me and I try to do it a few times a week. That can be dog walking or more recent strength and conditioning work, thanks to my friend and PT (James Dewar-Haggart). But as I’m carrying so much excess weight, even a 30 minute stretch of exercise will leave me shattered, potentially lead to a migraine, make me sweat so much I have to wash my hair (long-haired ladies will feel my pain). This means, on days where I exercise, I don’t start work until around noon and I’m so tired that I’m less productive. When you’re behind in your writing (hahahaha – when isn’t a PhD researcher behind in their writing?!) or have a fast approaching deadline, it’s hard to avoid pulling an 18 hour study session at the desk and delay exercising for another day.
The final example is about confidence. Being fat knocks your confidence – it’s the first thing people see about you. Not your skills, humour, loyalty, dedication, work ethic. Intersectionally, I’ve had many more unpleasant experiences as an adult because I’m overweight than I have because I’m queer. That could be a whole blog in its own right. I guess my queerness can be invisible but my fatness is always present. It makes me anxious in most settings. It’s tricky to explain without also sounding arrogant… but I am an excellent teacher. I spent years actively developing myself as a teacher. Therefore, in teaching settings, my confidence in my role outweighs* my lack of confidence about my body, so I can get on with the job. In this new academic setting, I have absolutely no confidence in my skills as a PhD researcher – most of us don’t because we’ve all slurped from the Imposter Syndrome water cooler. It means that I’m crippled by a lack of confidence in and about my whole being.
Without a long explanation of my personal, medical history… my extra weight also doesn’t make a lot of sense and has stumped a number of doctors and consultants. Suffice to say, it is not the result of junk food (despite what judgy people assume), poor diet, alcohol, laziness or recreational drugs. Recently, I’ve been fortunate to be referred to a specialist team who’ll be investigating all things weight-related to help me get to the bottom* of it. Alongside getting on with the PhD, I’m now handling my own data every day; it takes up a lot of time, ceases all spontaneity and makes me obsessive but it’s necessary. I’m also trying more intuitive eating and to change my brain’s relationship with food – inspired by some folks on TikTok (I know, it’s not just for comedy skits, it turns out).
* deliberate puns, it’s ok to laugh.
Ok, why patronuses / patroni? Well, my weight actually surprises those I’ve been brave enough to tell. I don’t know if they’re being polite or if I move/look/seem like a lighter person? It might even be because since the pandemic started, I’ve refused to wear baggy, dark clothes everyday and branched out into all things colourful? Maybe confidence (no matter the fact it’s a pretence) makes me seem a little lighter? I am not going to publish my actual weight but I did use Google to find out which animals weigh the same as me… and I was struck by how much I had in common with some of them. Thus, let me introduce you to my patronuses/patroni.
Andean Bear (males)
Also called Bespectacled Bear – I wear glasses.
Active both in the day and night – PhD studying happens 24/7.
Retreats from humans – say no more.
Pretty solitary but not territorial – yup.
Has massive mandibular muscles compared to its body size – if my wife is reading this, shhhhh! Don’t say it!
Tigers prefer to eat the prey they kill rather than carrion (which they’ll resort to in dire times) – I’m the same. I have an immense dislike of leftovers and I hate it when you eat out and the food is of a poorer quality than you could achieve at home.
They’re pretty nocturnal but will get on with things during the day if necessary – I’m an insomniac and will spend a good deal of the night doing things like the Tesco order, queuing up emails or writing to-do lists.
Although big, they’re fast but only over short distances – me, too! I move quickly and, surprisingly, quietly. Useful skills for a teacher and librarian.
When facing a problem, ostriches don’t bury their heads (this is a myth) but they do run away / hide / lie flat – avoiding problems? Sounds familiar.
If directly threatened and they can’t run or hide, they’ll kick – metaphorically, I’m the same. If pushed, I will eventually kick back.
Teeny-tiny heads in relation to big, round bodies – sigh.
They’re really bloody clever – I’d like to think I’m smart, too.
But they also have massive noses (beaks) – mine is certainly a prominent feature of my face.
They’ve got lots of nicknames (Saddleback dolphin, White-bellied porpoise, Cross-cross dolphin, Hourglass dolphin) – I also have a fair number. Jo, Joanna, Joanna-Louise (if I’m in trouble), Jonarnia (I think my aunties started this one), Toe (thank you, brother), MC-Kenna (students over the years).
They don’t like it too hot and prefer a surface temperature around 10 to 28°C – I definitely can’t function when it’s too hot.
A group of dolphins is called a school – nuff said.
If I don’t comment, one of my friends will… they’re also called asses.
They’re loud and can be heard from over 3km away – well, this is writing itself, isn’t it?
Apparently, they’re notoriously stubborn – in their case, it’s associated with self-preservation and, in my case, it’s probably my fierce independence.
Once you’ve earned their confidence, they can be quite biddable – yes, yes, I’m the same. Once I’ve let you into my inner-sanctum, I’m very loyal.